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Grant Gordy's folk songs rely on a global palette of sounds

Grant Gordy's masterful playing style is rooted in many traditions.
Mitsu Iwasaki

It was hard for Grant Gordy not to feel ridiculous as he crossed the casino floor in Central City. A showgirl tossing out beads led the parade, and a stilt walker brought up the rear. Gordy was caught somewhere in the middle, picking out Cajun tunes on a tenor banjo for the lines of stony-faced gamblers staring at slot machines.

"On the hour," he recalls of a gig he played five years ago, "they did these parades through the casino as if it were Mardi Gras. That was the gig."

Gordy's brief foray into Cajun music made an impact on him, as did other one-night gigs around Colorado in which he had to play Italian ballads, Greek folk music in a 5/4 time signature and John Denver covers. All the various stints helped him hone his approach.

"It was a super important education for me, learning to hang in all of these different musical worlds," Gordy insists. "A lot of it was instrumental music, and a lot of it was stuff from all over the world."

The influence shows on Grant Gordy, his debut release, due out this week. For all it owes to American folk rhythms, jazz-inspired chord structures and the driving pace of contemporary bluegrass, the record bears the mark of Gordy's early exposure to a cosmopolitan range of instrumental styles. To that end, his playing style draws on the flatpicking of Doc Watson and the melodic density of Django Reinhardt. He speaks with envy, meanwhile, about the compositional nuances of Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, and in his more ambitious moments, his writing style even carries echoes of Claude Debussy's experiments with counterpoint.

All of these things can be heard clearly on his inaugural release. His guitar solo on the straightforward traditional bluegrass song "Goodbye Liza Jane" includes moments of unlikely phrasing, exotic melodies that hint at an old-world influence. "Motif for Leif," a paean to Django Reinhardt, is too layered and dense to be a simple echo of Gypsy jazz. Some of the expansive, bright melodies on "Little Grapes" summon mental images of Venetian canals and aural echoes of Spanish flamenco.

"Blues to Dawg," a tribute to bluegrass veteran David Grisman, is equal parts New Orleans swagger and Mississippi Delta sentiment, while "Lila" takes its cues from impressionist classical compositions.

Fittingly, the mix is reflective of Gordy's love for folk music. His definition of the genre is broad; it's a musical form, he says, that relies on a global palette of sounds, a constant exchange of ideas between musicians.

"I think that's a huge part of what it is for me," he admits. "As weird and intellectual as music can get, folk music in its broadest sense is a really important thing. That aspect of music being a communal experience with friends was a really big eye-opener for me.... When I say folk music, obviously I don't just mean Bob Dylan or Joan Baez. It can be translated into a lot of different kinds of music. That's kind of how I learned how to play jazz."

It's also how he learned to play guitar. Growing up in Oregon, Gordy took cues from his father, Rich, who had played guitar in the Chicago R&B scene with musical legends like Muddy Waters and B.B. King. His father's professional career as a musician ended early, but Gordy said jam sessions were a constant fixture of his childhood. It's what exposed him to Watson's bluegrass flatpicking and that of Joe Rice; it's what invested him in the primal power of the blues; it's what made him pick out chords and melodies on his first guitar when he was thirteen.

"That very visceral, very accessible folk-music tradition was happening," Gordy recalls. "It facilitated my ability to learn from a lot of different kinds of people."

After Gordy moved to Colorado about eight years ago, he used this give-and-take approach to pick up new styles and help find a crew of like-minded musicians for his freshman album — virtuosos from across the country who shared a love of acoustic instruments and difficult material.

Finding them was as simple as making the local bluegrass festival circuit, sitting in circles and jamming with other musicians. Just as he used the fake Mardi Gras parades in Central City as a way to further his own style, Gordy has drawn on the musical community around him to find his voice.

"All of the sudden, I found myself in a recording session playing some...Macedonian tune in thirteen," Gordy marvels, letting out a laugh. "Part of that, I think, is Colorado, too. There are a lot of diverse kinds of people here."

Jayme Stone, who played banjo on Gordy's album and served as its co-producer, has included Gordy as a guitarist in tours across the United States and Canada since they met five years ago. Finding the right musicians to contribute to an album of Gordy's original material has long been a goal, Stone says.

"We've been talking about it for a long time," he explains. "I think, for him, it was a slow courtship of getting revved up to the idea. All of the musicians, to some degree, are cut from the same cloth. They're all very young, very virtuosic musicians steeped in many different kinds of music."

Their resumés speak for themselves.

At eighteen, fiddler Alex Hargreaves has already won awards from national music organizations, played at the Grand Ole Opry and collaborated with Béla Fleck. The album also features Punch Brothers bassist Paul Kowert, whom Gordy met when they were both participating in Edgar Meyer's Carnegie Hall Workshop in New York City in 2006. Dominick Lesley, an International Bluegrass Music Award winner, played mandolin on the majority of the album. And bluegrass veteran David Grisman isn't just the subject of the tribute tune "Blues to Dawg"; he also contributed mandolin on one of the album's tunes.

Just as Gordy would watch his father assemble different types of musicians as a child, he found his own ideal roster of players. "Just picking bluegrass tunes at festivals — that's how we all met," recalls Lesley. "That's where we had our first musical connections, through folk music."

According to Stone, the caliber of the musicians matches the challenges of Gordy's compositions. "Boy, that music is hard to play," he points out. "There is a lot of detail in the melodies, a lot of the parts are complex, a lot of the tempos are really quick. It's definitely very engaging, very challenging music. "Grant is very steeped in the blues, gospel music, early jazz, modern jazz, he's a killer bluegrass player; he's great at finding a way to play traditional music from all over the world.

"It's like wielding different kinds of music is no big deal," Stone adds.

For Gordy, the skill goes back to the nights spent watching his father's friends jam on blues and R&B. It goes back to the gigs where he was forced to take up a new instrument and a new idiom, to the countless festivals where he interacted with new musicians.

"I've had the opportunity to play French music, Italian tunes, Bach, Malian music and bluegrass and jazz and rock and roll and country," notes Gordy. "It never was really a conscious choice. I started working with people that always do lots of different kinds of stuff."

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